Prominent Democrats have called for the end of the Electoral College, that unusual device through which we select our president. A Representative from Hawaii has introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish it and use the national popular vote to choose our chief executive. Conservatives now defend the Electoral College. You might think this indicates some sort of principled split over basic constitutional principles; you might think that if you were ill-informed. The defenders of the present system, of course, want the status quo because they believe it favors Republicans while the reformers believe Democrats would benefit from a national popular vote. These inclinations are fueled by recent history. Twice in the last generation we have inaugurated presidents who did not get the most votes, and both of them were Republicans.
We did not always have this partisan divide over the Electoral College. The 1968 election produced a close national popular vote but a much wider margin in the Electoral College. Six months before that election, 66 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats stated that the Electoral College should be replaced with a national popular vote. After the election, 80 percent of Americans supported changing the electoral system. In 1969, the House, by 339 to 70, passed a constitutional amendment to select the president by popular vote. The proposal, however, was filibustered to death in the other chamber by Senators from small states.
If such an amendment could not make it through the Senate when the populace overwhelmingly favored it, a similar amendment has no chance in the Senate today. However, reforms of the Electoral College are possible without a constitutional amendment. Most states now have a winner-takes-all approach to the allocation of their electoral votes. Whoever garners the most votes receives all the electoral votes. This method of allocating a state’s electoral votes is a prime reason it is possible for a candidate to get the most votes nationally but lose in the Electoral College. The winner-takes-all rule is not constitutionally required, and some states have modified it by giving an electoral vote to the candidate who wins the most votes in each congressional district with the state’s two other electoral votes going to the candidate who wins the state. Other states have signed onto a national popular vote bill that would give each state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most nationwide votes. The bill would take effect in those states when jurisdictions with a combined 270 electoral votes have enacted it. (Fifteen states with a total of 189 electoral votes have already passed it.)
I think that in a land that likes to tout a government of “We, the People,” the direct election of the president would probably be a good thing. Surely, “We, the People” can be an aspirational concept under our present system where a candidate who does not get the most votes can become president. But in the unlikely event that we get to some system where the president is elected by the national popular vote, we will deepen current controversies about who gets to vote.
We don’t have national voter standards, and this is a problem if the national popular vote is to determine who will be president. For example, states have different laws concerning the disenfranchisement of convicted felons. A few states allow all to vote. Some states permanently bar convicts from voting. Some states prohibit those in prison from voting. And so on. As a result, a higher percentage of the population can be eligible to vote in State A than in State B. And of course, identification laws for voting and provisions for early voting mean some states make it easier or harder to vote. A true national popular vote should have uniform standards on voting eligibility and procedures, but we now leave that to the states. Getting to the needed uniformity seems unlikely even if we managed to implement the direct election of the president.
While states disenfranchise differing portions of its citizenry make a true national popular vote impossible, the direct election of the president would at least lessen the fact that some votes count a lot more than others in our present system. I vote in New York, but my vote for president is, in a practical sense, meaningless. Last election, I could be confident that no matter whether I voted or not, all of New York’s electoral votes would go to Hillary Clinton because she was certain to get a majority of the state’s vote. In any “safe” state, be it California, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, or elsewhere, it is clear who will get the electoral votes, and it does not matter whether the winning or losing candidate gets more or fewer votes.
The truly important voters throughout the country are in the “swing” states. In 2016, the votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania mattered much more than in other places. Each swing-state voter, and non-voter counts much more than those in the safe states. That may not seem American, but it is the American way.
(concluded April 12)